As the story goes, Benjamin Britten attended a concert with Dmitri Shostakovich to hear Rostoprovich play. He had never heard him before, and was more than impressed. After the concert, Shostakovich introduced the composer to the cellist. Rostropovich was later to say that (and this was a long time ago), he had not heard of Britten. But they got on well together, and Rostropovich asked Britten if he would write a piece for him. The result was the Sonata for cello and piano in C major (actually it was the first of five pieces Britten wrote for the cellist who became his close friend), and I heard it (perhaps for the first time) this afternoon at the Church of the Epiphany, performed by pianist Jeffrey Chappell, and cellist Vasily Popov.
Before they started the piece, Popov gave an interesting (if sometimes hard to hear) introduction, talking about the seminal role Rostropovich played in establishing 20th century cello music. Many pieces were written with his assistance, many pieces were dedicated to him and written with him in mind, and many pieces were the result of works that Rostropovich himself commissioned. After the concert, reading a little about this piece, I learned that Britten was a little hesitant about writing for Rostropovich because he was, in fact, not at all familiar with the cello. Perhaps, this was an advantage, because he seemed to push the instrument well beyond its normal breadth; his biggest concern may have been whether a cellist, even the Maestro, could perform it. For his part, Rostropovich said that when they first tried out the piece, they waited until they had four or five drinks a piece. Then, he said, we had a lot of fun.
I did not know what to expect. It’s a five movement sonata and the first, and I think longest, movement is very fast, very loud, and (can I say it respectfully) very chaotic. I wondered how much of it I could take (I couldn’t really make sense of it) but certainly admired the technical expertise of the musicians. But with the second movement, the mood changed (and now I see how Rostropovich and Britten could have had fun) with the cello being plucked, and the piano following right along.
So you don’t go out of the concert hall humming the tune (ha, ha), but you have to admire what you have heard (and enjoyed) — two top notch musicians attacking a clearly difficult piece which stretches the cello to its limits, and challenges the accompanying piano.
Before the Britten, each of the performers played a solo number. Chappell played one of Bach’s toccatas, again with great technical expertise. I must say, however, that I had to transform the piece, as I was listening, from piano to harpsichord (what’s my trick?) to really enjoy. Again, looking on line at some descriptions of Bach’s toccatas, I read that, because they are so exuberant (Bach wrote them when he was quite young), they are much better suited to the harpsichord, and rarely performed on the piano (and that you really need to be a good pianist to perform them well). I think Chappell did a fine job – but his speed was matched by the decibel level – I am sure that this is the way to perform this piece, but because the piano can be so much louder than the harpsichord, the older instrument does seem by far more preferable.
Popov’s solo was also by Bach, a prelude (D major) from Bach’s Suite for unaccompanied cello. Very nicely done.